You Are a City on a Hill: Reflections on a Catholic Presence

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I am among the rapidly diminishing number of people who still listen to the radio when I drive (as opposed to listening to some kind of subscriber music streaming service). Although channel surfing can be tedious, I especially enjoy listening to the radio on long drives because it is possible to detect elements of distinct regional characteristics. On the seven-hour drive from Boonton to Roanoke, Virginia, one cannot help but notice the markedly increased number of Country music and Christian radio stations. The radio stations reflect the regional temperament and culture, and, as one would expect, there is no shortage of churches adorning the countryside outside the car windows. When I wasn’t humming along with the radio along the drive, I was reflecting on the work of OLMC School, and I found in those churches—or, at least, two particular churches—a poignant and encouraging metaphor for our educational mission.I was looking forward to this particular drive quite a bit. For as long as I can remember, I have associated autumn with the Shenandoah Valley. There really is no more ideal canvass for the fireworks of fall than the rolling countryside flanked on the east and the west by the Blue Ridge Mountains. Autumn hikes and picnics along Skyline Drive, apple picking, and visits to Valley battlefields are among my most treasured memories—of my own youth and that of my children. Now, with two of my children enrolled in college in the region, I eagerly anticipated an October visit that compounded our reunion with the splendor that accompanies Nature’s falling into slumber. So it was with mild disappointment that I discovered that this season’s festival of leaves was delayed and muted—apparently a consequence of the elevated and extended warmth of summer and fall. That mild disappointment prompted me to look elsewhere for evidence of divine beneficence, and provided me an occasion for reflecting on the way that Grace perfects Nature.

As I suggested, there are a lot of churches, large and small, new and old, in the Shenandoah Valley, most of them Protestant. Populated by Anglo-Celts and Germans who migrated from Pennsylvania, Catholicism was historically a minority religious tradition. Even today, Catholics are among the smaller groups of Christians in that part of the commonwealth.

The role that Catholics have played in Virginia history, and early American history as a whole, is generally dismissed and forgotten. This is a mistake. Typically associated with the immigration of the 19th and 20th centuries, Catholicism is usually understood to have had little to do with the American founding era apart from some pockets in Maryland. Yet the earliest English forays into the New World would have been very different, and likely unsuccessful, without Catholic contributions. In fact, the first president of the Virginia Colony, Edward Wingfield, was Catholic. And John Smith himself credited the skill and ingenuity of Catholic artisans that he recruited for the expedition from Poland with saving the colony from starvation. Just a little reflection on Catholic contributions to early American identity suggests that though few in number, their impact was significant.

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Appropriately, amidst the breathtaking natural beauty and the abundant protestant churches, two Catholic churches bookending the Valley North and South stand out conspicuously. 

The twin Gothic spires of St. Andrew’s Catholic church are among the first things one sees when approaching Roanoke, the Star City. Situated prominently on the knoll overlooking the small city and the surrounding area, St. Andrew’s spires and elegant copper finishing catch the light of dawn in a way that warms the heart and offers hope for the day ahead. The exterior beauty of the Victorian architecture is only exceeded by the detailed and beautiful interior. With its intricate white Italian marble altars, tabernacle and reredos, and altar railings, the church’s sanctuary is a feast for the eyes; it inspires contemplation and devotion. The church’s fifteen massive stained windows tell the story of salvation history, recount the faithfulness of the saints, and depict the history of Catholicism in the New World. From its prominent position, St. Andrew’s provides a welcoming beacon of Christ’s love and a stirring image of the hope of the resurrection.

Some 200 miles to the north of Roanoke, at the bottom of the Valley (the Shenandoah river flows south to north) in Harpers Ferry (now West Virginia), another Catholic church inspires with a complementary vision for the witness of the Catholic faith.

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Built in the early decades of the 19th century, St. Peter’s Catholic church is lovely but smaller and humbler than St. Andrew’s, overlooking the hamlet that is now little more than a museum. The terrain surrounding it is remarkable and dramatic, prompting Thomas Jefferson to remark in his Notes on the State of Virginia that the sight alone is worth a trip across the Atlantic Ocean. By contrast, the church provides a calm and serene anchor to the hilly surroundings. Situated as it is between the Maryland Heights and the Loudon Heights on opposite sides of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers, St. Peter’s is shaded from the morning light. As the sun sets in the West, however, the beautiful church stands out with a glow that seems to resist the encroaching darkness of night.

From a distance, in the pale light of dawn and dusk, both churches appear almost as cities unto themselves. Each is a “city on a hill” that stands apart from the darkness, preserves memory, offers refuge, and points the way to our transcendent hope.

Our Catholic forebears who built these churches were relatively few in number, but they transformed the world of which they were a part. They brought the hope of the Church to this New World, and in their faithfulness they made it both more habitable and more beautiful. Inspired and equipped by Grace, even in seasons when Nature is wounded or otherwise impaired, their legacy continues to elevate our expectations and our aspirations. By the same token, Our Lady of Mount Carmel is a small school, but our students are being prepared to stand our similarly—as the Light of the World, witnesses to the great hope of which we are stewards.

Douglas MinsonHeadmaster

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For further reading about the British folkways into the New World:

For enjoyment and further consideration of Virginia landscapes and culture: